Saw Gang


THE sun had not yet risen above the woods when Ernie started, and the grass on the little road up through the hemlocks was crisp with frost. As he topped the stiff climb and came out onto Thurson’s meadow, above the town reservoir, the first flat rays hit him in the face.

He put his double-bitted axe through the fence, climbed through after it, crossed the meadow, and jumped the swamp from hummock to hummock until he entered the cedars. Cattle had been among the low growth; their split tracks were sucked deep into the ground and half frozen there.

On the other side of the rail fence belting the cedars he came again into open meadow, still green after a late mowing, and saw the long hill ahead of him, winter-black spruce scattered through the dying color of the maples. October was a very taste in the air of smoke and frost and dried seed pods, and he filled his lungs with it, walking rapidly up toward Pembrook’s farm and the crown of woods behind it where George Pembrook was cutting wood.

He did not trouble to stop in the Pembrooks’ yard, but ducked under the last fence and went on up the brown skid road George had worn hauling limb wood down to his circle saw. As he climbed, the sun climbed with him, but the air still had its winy sparkle, and there was a smell from grass and weeds as the frost thawed.

Just where the skid road turned left up a little draw toward the sugarbush, he saw Will Livesy and Donald Swain coming across from the other side, both with axes. Their greetings were brief.

“Hi, kid,” Donald said.

“Hi, boy,” said Will.

They walked along together, not talking. Ernie, matching his behavior to theirs, walked steadily, watching the woods. Only when Donald Swain breathed his lungs full of air, shifted his axe to the other shoulder, and said, “Good workin’ weather,” the boy looked at him and they grinned. It was what he had wanted to say himself.

Ahead of them, back in the woods, the saw engine started, and a minute later they heard the blade rip across the first log. Will Livesy took out a turnip watch, turned it for the others to see. It was seventhirty. “Ain’t wastin’ no time,” Will said.

The saw was set up in a clearing at the bottom of a slope. Behind it was a skidway piled ten feet high with logs. George Pembrook was there, and his brother Howard, and John LaPere, the sawyer. George, dogging a log forward under the upraised saw, spat sideways on the ground, unsmiling.

“Up late last night?”

“’y God,” Will Livesy said, “I was up all night. Got any wood to chop to keep me awake?”

George looked at the mountainous skidway behind him. “Just a mite,” he said.

Ernie stood his axe against a tree and jumped to roll a chunk, solid and squat as a meat block, from under the saw. Donald and Will squared away. Donald spat on his hands, swung: the blade bounded from the hard wood. A second later Will’s axe came down on the other side, in the mathematical center of the chunk, and got a bite. Donald swung again, his blade biting into the crack his first blow had made, a quarter of an inch from Will’s axe, and the chunk fell cleanly in two.

Everybody found a job and went at it. Howard Pembrook rolled logs down onto the track, George dogged them through and braced them, LaPere dropped the saw onto them and whacked them into stove lengths, Ernie cleared them away, Donald and Will split. In the leaf-and-chip-strewn clearing, under the thinning maples, the pulse of the saw went up like the panting of a man.

Every hour or two, without talking about it, they changed off jobs, all except LaPere and Donald Swain. The work went on without pause while the sun climbed higher above the hill and the air warmed. Once in a while, seeing the lower part of the skidway bare, Ernie left his job and helped roll a new supply of logs down the skids with cant hooks. Nobody said anything.

About eleven, as Will was poking a six-inch pole under the saw, LaPere raised his denim cap and looked down his nose at the thing. Most of the logs they had been sawing were birch and beech and maple anywhere from eighteen to thirty inches through.

“Call that a log?” he said.

Will grinned. “George lost his fishpole.”

A few minutes later, as Ernie rolled a big twisted knotty rot-sided maple log onto the tracks and Will dogged it forward, LaPere let the saw down experimentally and raked it across the crumbling bark. “Kind of gone by, ain’t it?”

“Best George could find,” Will said. He dropped the bracing lever across the log and threw his weight on it. LaPere bore down on the clutch and the jerking blade came down. Halfway through the pulpy log it hit a hard knot, the blade bent almost double, the log kicked sideways off the track as Will’s lever slipped on the rotten bark and flipped upward like a swung bat. By the time LaPere could raise the saw the blade had jumped free and hung quivering, shaking shredded pulp from its two-inch teeth. Will was standing with his head down, feeling his jaw.

“Thunderation!” George Pembrook said. “That was a whack.”

“Lever kicked up,” Donald Swain said, watching Will. He said it for nobody in particular; they had all looked up instantly at the warning howl of the saw. “Took him right under the chin,” Donald said.

Will felt his jaw tenderly. His hat had fallen off, and his thin red hair stuck up on end. Looking down from the platform, LaPere chuckled.

“Lose any teeth, Will?”

Will shook his head to clear it, felt his chin again, and cackled with sudden laughter, “’y God, I didn’t have ‘em in!” he said. He rolled the log back with a hook, and they were working again so abruptly that Ernie had to jump to get the chunk from under the saw.


AT NOON, without comment, LaPere cut the switch and the engine stopped with three lunging coughs. Donald and George sank their axes in the chunk they had been splitting, they all collected their frocks from the trees where they had hung them, and within three minutes they were strung out along the trail on their way to the farmhouse.

Ernie did not push himself up with the others. Though he had known them all his life, he knew better at fifteen than to take it for granted he was one of them. In silence he followed the silent file until they came into the open opposite George’s sugarhouse. There John LaPere, walking with George Pembrook, stopped and stared, and the rest piled up behind him.

“Great God, George!” LaPere said.

A little clump of spruces had been chopped down by the side of the road, and Ernie, coming up behind the clot of men, saw that the trees had been whittled and chewed and mangled with a dull axe and finally broken off instead of being chopped off clean.

“That city kid I had this summer,” George said. “I think he used his teeth.”

One by one, as they started again, the men looked at the mangled butts, then at each other. They whistled, grinning a little, and walked on. Will Livesy, a black clot of blood like a beard under his chin, turned and shook his head at Ernie, calling his attention to the stumps.

The table was set at the Pembrooksb’. George changed from gum boots to slippers and turned on the radio while the men went one by one to the sink to wash. Ernie went last. By the time he sat down, the governor from Montpelier was discussing with the state the provisions he was making for coal supplies, and they listened to him in silence for twenty minutes, steadily consuming two plates apiece of Mrs. Pembrook’s meat loaf, baked potatoes, hot biscuits, string beans, carrots, and sweet pickle.

They finished neck and neck with the governor, loitered briefly outside in the sun while George got back into gum boots, and then went silently back up the skid road past the sugarhouse and the gnawed spruce stumps and into the woods. Before LaPere had his engine started Howard Pembrook and Donald Swain were swinging splitting hammers on the tough and knotty chunks that they had rolled aside earlier.

In midafternoon George’s hound wandered up muddy-footed from chasing through a swamp. It went around to each man, and each stopped for a second to scratch its ears, until it came to LaPere, up on the shaking platform. Then the hound sat down. “Hi, Sport,” LaPere said.

About three-thirty, with the saw halfway through a big yellow birch log, the engine died. LaPere looked surprised. “‘Nuts,’ said McGinty,” he said. He opened the gas cap, stuck a twig down, raised his eyebrows, and reached for the gas can. Ernie, straightening up to ease his aching back, saw that none of the others were stopping. Howard and Will were rolling down a new supply of logs, Donald and George stacking stovewood against the spreading pile to keep it from engulfing the splitting space. Ernie got the shovel and cleaned the sawdust out from under the track.

Through the whole afternoon, while the sun rolled down the long slope of the western hills and the hound got bored and wandered away and the stack of split wood got head high, and more than head high, they worked steadily and in silence. Ernie, his back and his belly sore from leaning and lifting, kept his mouth shut and worked with them. He knew they would never have worked like this for any employer, that they kept up the pace only because they all owed George help and would give nothing but their best day’s work in exchange. Still, he kept listening, half hopeful that the engine would die again. The great pile of logs had receded twenty feet up the skidway, and sawdust was ankle deep all around the saw.

About four George began jacking the logs thirty inches forward instead of fifteen. “Got about enough stovewood,” he said.

The erratic, tearing rhythm of the saw, the panting of the engine, went on, punctuated by the solid, wet chunk of the splitters’ axes. Behind the splitters another pile began to grow, furnace chunks this time. The hound came back, found no one to scratch its ears, and disappeared again. The logs came faster off the skids now; George’s hand on the dogging lever was almost as regular as a hand on a pump handle.

The sun was shining through the maples, almost flat over the hill, when LaPere cut the switch. This time the men did not immediately drop what they were doing. Ernie, looking around gratefully in the expectation that the day was finally over, saw Donald and Howard finishing up a dozen blocks. Donald, who had been splitting steadily, without change or rest, since seven-thirty, was cleaning up all the gnarled and knotty chunks that had resisted him before. LaPere was gassing and oiling the engine and taking out the blade for sharpening. Will was shoveling out sawdust. Unwillingly, because he couldn’t help it, Ernie went and helped George roll down logs from the skids for the next day.

It was fifteen minutes before they all picked up their frocks. For a while George Pembrook stood looking at the two mighty heaps of sawed and split wood. “I’m obliged to you, boys,” he said. “Way I felt when I was skiddin’ them up, I thought there was a week’s sawing there.”

LaPere worked his eyebrows. “Can’t be more’n about thirty run.”

“If there ain’t fifty already split I’ll eat all the bark and sawdust,” George said.

Winking at Donald Swain, LaPere drew his mouth down sorrowfully. “Never make fifty in a day, not without better help’n we had.”

“Guess the help got to it fast as you Could saw it,” Donald said.

LaPere looked at the remaining pile of logs. “Only another half day,” he said. “You’ll have about enough to last you till mud time, George.”

They shouldered into their coats, grinning a little among themselves. Ernie, following their lead, looked at the piles of wood and knew, that they had done a day’s work that amounted to something. George already had enough wood there to last him two years.

His back ached as if a log had dropped across it, and a hard sore spot had developed under his left shoulder blade, but he followed them out of the woods feeling good, feeling tired and full of October smell and the smell of fresh-sawed wood and hot oil. As they left the woods he jumped for a limb and shook down a patter of beechnuts around him and Will Livesy. They stopped and gathered their hands full before following the others out.

Ernie, peeling a beechnut and popping it in his mouth, looked at Will, small, skinny, his chin still clotted with dried blood, and it was respect as much as anything else that made him say, “How’s your jaw feel, Will?”

“Feels all right,” Will said. “’T ain’t as bad as last time I got kicked. Wa’n’t any horseshoe on it this time.”

In the dusk they strung out into the open above the sugarhouse. Ernie, looking ahead, saw John LaPere stop momentarily beside the chewed and whittled spruce butts, turn his head and stare. His voice boomed in the quiet, tired twilight, loud with wonder and laughter and disbelief.

“Great God!” he said, and walked on shaking his head and laughing.